Justine Greening, the deposed Conservative education secretary, is in the wrong party. Don’t worry, this isn’t the prompt for a tedious discussion on the merits of a “new centrist party”; what I mean is that her stock is higher in every other party at Westminster than her own.
One of the reasons governments lose talent as they go on is that personnel changes are increasingly driven by internal pressures. That punishes politicians without a party base, like Greening, and elevates dubious characters such as the Transport Secretary, Chris Grayling. He remained in post during the reshuffle not because he is good or admired, but because he is that rare thing: a committed Brexiteer who is loyal to Theresa May. (He ran her leadership campaign in 2016.)
Still, while Conservative MPs might differ from their Labour opponents on the merits of Greening, they do share a series of convictions. First, that May is not up to scratch. Second, that it is unthinkable that they could choose a new sitting prime minister who has never held a cabinet position before. And third, that the cabinet as it is currently constituted is low on star power.
As a result, fresh faces at the top of government are considered a must. But the reshuffle, which dribbled on through Monday and Tuesday, did nothing to replenish the supplies of possible post-May candidates from either the right or left of the Conservative Party. That wasn’t an inevitable consequence of the Prime Minister’s weakness: she could have removed any or all of Liz Truss, Andrea Leadsom and Greg Clark from her cabinet had she wanted to, and promoted some more rising stars, such as Dominic Raab, Rory Stewart or Claire Perry (though Perry at least got the consolation prize of the right to attend cabinet).
In fact, May made more changes than she would have wished: Greening’s refusal to move sideways to work and pensions prompted her departure from government, creating a vacant post; another was created when James Brokenshire stepped down as secretary of state for Northern Ireland because of ill health.
The second, surprising lesson from the reshuffle is that May does not appear to share the consensus view that she is an electoral
deadweight and cannot possibly contest the next election.
A frequent complaint from those who have worked with her, even for several decades, is that she has little in the way of small talk, and neither the ability nor the inclination to diverge from a party line. (One minister recently remarked that eating with May was like “dining alone”.)
One consequence of this is that people often leave a meeting with the Prime Minister believing she agrees with them, not because she has said she does, but because she has said so little. Any Tory MP who assumes that May will step down before the next election should bear this in mind. They should listen, too, to her repeated public statements. May has said several times that she could lead her party to the polls again, and my hunch is that this reflects her private view. Her reshuffle strategy was not that of a leader in the terminal phase of her premiership who is keen to groom a new generation. Does this mean Westminster is adjusting to the idea that May could be in place until 2021 and, perhaps, even go to the country in 2022, when the next election is due under the Fixed-term Parliaments Act?
Recently, I attended a series of Britain-Thinks focus groups in Watford, a marginal constituency in which the Conservatives just held off the Labour advance in 2017. Participants were united by two things: support for the royal family and visceral dislike of May. Among the over-55s, the group that kept the Tories in office, the Prime Minister was likened to a gin and tonic because she was “so bitter”. This distaste was confirmed by a BritainThinks poll, which found a plurality of voters believed she should resign by the end of 2018.
Neither Remainers nor Leavers in the parliamentary Tory party want to risk a leadership election while the Brexit negotiations are ongoing, so that wish is unlikely to be fulfilled. But the difficult truth for the Tories is that when the Brexit talks are over, their choices for the next leader will be limited by the cautious decisions taken by May this week. They will also inherit a country defined by timidity on the biggest policy questions of all.
That’s one reason increasing numbers of Tory MPs are no longer talking about how best to win back those voters who supported David Cameron in 2010 and 2015, but defected to Labour in 2017. Instead, they wonder how to “maximise the white vote”, as one Conservative MP puts it. In constituency terms, that means eking out narrow wins in Labour-held marginals in the Midlands, Wales and the north of England, such as Bishop Auckland, Darlington, Newcastle-under-Lyme, Wrexham and Ashfield. (All have fewer graduates, Remain voters or ethnic minorities than the average Labour seat.)
The Tories would also need to hold Mansfield, North East Derbyshire and Walsall North, all of which went Conservative against the overall trend in 2017. This strategy means accepting that Canterbury and Battersea are lost, and that Putney and Hastings, the seats of Justine Greening and Amber Rudd, are likely to turn red too.
It might, just about, work. It could also be the only option, given that May’s natural instinct is to aggravate rather than soothe social liberals, and she tends to promote in her own image. But it’s a strategy for clinging to power rather than winning a majority or revitalising the country. Reshuffles in which the headline news is prime ministerial weakness will become the default setting rather than the exception for the Conservative Party.
This article appears in the 10 Jan 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Toddler in chief